This note is the sixteenth letter in the 104-days-of-summer-vacation series. You can also follow the full twitter thread here, and leave any thoughts and comments that might come up!
Yesterday, I wrote about grieving our unrealized dreams. The whole process really made me think about how people decide what kind of work to do, since as I’ve discussed before, vision is super important (random-walks-are-sqrtn). Fortunately, the effective altruist community, and the associated organization 80,000 hours, have been thinking about this extensively.
They highlight specifically, the following six factors.
- Engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow (freedom, variety, clear tasks, feedback).
- Work that helps others.
- Work you’re good at.
- Supportive colleagues.
- No major negatives, like long hours or unfair pay.
- A job that fits your personal life.
Or in short:
get good at something that helps others - do what contributes
This is an elegantly simple piece of advice, and is evidence-backed. The rest of the career guide talks about which problems are worth contributing to, or in EA lingo, which ones maximize the (expected) impact. For effective altruists, these are problems which are neglected and high-leverage - they cite AI safety, biosecurity and other existential risks as top of the list. I don’t entirely buy that line of argument yet, mostly due to some criticisms of longtermism and the EA approach in general.
But there is lots of wisdom to take away, even disregarding the value judgements of Effective Altruism.
Don’t armchair philosophize - To solve big impact problems, it is important to get to the edge of an area before spotting solutions people haven’t already thought of and to have the required connections to execute. This means working with and talking to lots of people.
The most successful people have far more impact (pareto-distribution). It’s important to be good at what you do.
Figuring out what you’re good at, is not gut feel but a systematic process of trial and error. Try lots of things to work out what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at. So early on in a career, it is important to maximize the rate of learning to find something that you can be really good at.
Make great contributions. If you do stellar work, you build your reputation and it allows you to meet other high achievers.
Tomorrow, I’ll be writing more about effective altruism and the specific value judgements that it makes. I’m also patiently working through the 80,000 hours exercises, to build more clarity for myself.
In the meantime, I think I’ve spent long enough on the computer for today, it’s a beautiful day in India. It’s time to take a walk, perhaps even, for you too dear reader! See you tomorrow :)
PS: Tim Urban also wrote a good blog post: https://waitbutwhy.com/2018/04/picking-career.html